Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sun, Serendipity & No Straying Off Path

Southwestern Cambodia borders the Gulf of Thailand is supposedly the "next Southern Thailand" with its sleepy sand 'n surf towns, beachfront dining by palm-oil lantern light and uninhabitated coastal islands. Andy and I decided it our moral duty as independent travelers to check the area out before it's awash in even more Lonely Planet backpackers and, gasp, dreaded "package tour" travelers, so we headed south on the bus.

Yes, the bus -- we got brave again after India since the Cambodian coaches have a small blast of air that circulates throughout (small...petite, tiny, wee...but better than nothing!) and they only sit four across instead of five or six. However, please note, buses don't have a bathroom and if you have the misfortune of needing relief on a ride, you must politely pantomime to the driver, get him to stop and squat near the bus with its big windows and main road!!!~> read more

 NOT, I repeat not, in the privacy of the trees or a shrouded path away from the bus.

Why? Because Cambodia is still riven with landmines and it's dangerous to pee off-path. How weird and sad is that??? History is alive and killing even today in Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam War and Vietnamese intervention of the 1970's and 1980s. Many of the scars of its horriffic past are buried only inches under the soil around the country, and millions of land mines laid by various guerrilla groups that terrorized the country are still unknown and unexploded. Yes, millions -- Cambodia has somewhere between 4 - 6 million dotting its rice field, roads and countryside. The complexity and expense of finding them is too much for this little country and the landmines still kill about 45 people a month. Thus, one is advised to stay on path when temple or tinkle seeking, and it's imperative to stay on marked roads and rice paddies whenever exploring.

I'm sure this concept seems difficult to comprehend -- we read it in the "LP" and were kind of dubious -- but all you need to do is walk out of your guest house and see the first limbless beggar asking for money and you know it's real. Sadly, there are so many of these people on the beach and street, you can't give to all of them but it's hard...nothing stops you in your traveler tracks like someone hobbling on crutches without their lower arms and left leg.

Anyway, on a lighter note, we disembarked in Sihanoukville and jumped on a moto, giant backpacks, little day packs and all, and started exploring its myriad beach areas. Serendipity, Victory, Sokha, Occheuteal and Koh Pos greeted us with warm, beige sand and sea-green water that was our warmest yet! I'd say bath water, but I haven't had a bath in months and we're now trading hot water in favor of A/C so that's an analogy which triggers yearning. ;)

We spent most of our week on Serendipity and Occheuteal beaches, staying in a guest house only a short palm-lined walk away for $10, and soaked up the atmosphere. The area is full of charming bungalow restaurants with rattan lounge seating on the beach and free black rubber inner-tubes for riding the wives, and while there are some travelers, it's not the hordes you see in the Thai islands. But, things are happening, and we both feel Cambodia's coast will be wildly different in one year.

You can see and smell the changes afoot, as structures are going up haphazardly -- if you're not careful you might catch a spark from a welder in the eye while the smell of fresh asphalt grinds in your nose when you're suddenly walking or riding on it. (No, not kidding!) Guest houses are appearing nearly overnight, trees are disappearing overnight and we saw crews of krama-covered workers toiling in the heat, digging, paving and laying brick by hand in three stretches of the same main road of Sihanoukville. (the krama is a protective scarf very popular and indigenous here. you see it used in many ways)

In many ways, land development and land mines sum up Cambodia...progress and tragedy mingled in one movement that has positive yet precarious momentum. The country has struggled so long and hard against war, famine, freedom and stability that it's desperate for a prosperous economy and tourism is the seducing light at the end of the tunnel. It often feels like everyone is out for a piece of it -- and subsequently a piece of you, as a traveler. Everything is for sale or going to be, and everyone is selling. We're enjoying ourselves, but the lure of constant potential and a voracious appetite for the dollar means that in Cambodia, we always have to watch our step.


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